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The Middle Church

Ephraim Radner

Exploring the forgotten intersection of the local and global church.

Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto
December 11, 2017

“Local” and “universal” are the two most important ways Christians in our day talk about the church. There have long been running arguments between proponents of the “local church” and proponents of the “universal church.” Protestants have often preferred to talk about church as “local,” and Protestantism has had a general congregationalist bias: what happens to the individual Christian in a local congregation is what’s important. Catholics have tended to press talk about the church in a more universal register: what defines “church” is the great reality of inclusive teaching and authority that holds together Christians all around the world (and in heaven too). Of course, Protestants have an interest in the universal church too—the generally “invisible” communion of all the redeemed. And Catholics have an interest in the local church, and even argue among themselves as to how to make sense of its fundamental integrity.

But the contrasts are set in everyone’s minds. Local and universal: this has been the ping-pong of our modern ecclesiologies. What the contemporary church of Western culture has often forgotten is what lies in between the two: the “Middle Church” we could say. And it is the Middle Church (echoes with Tolkien are deliberate) that is both the challenge and the meat of the Christian life.

The Middle Church is that aspect of Christian life that connects the local to the universal. It is the church as it is embodied in living relationships among groups and congregations. The Middle Church makes possible traveling by pastors, evangelists, and teachers among Christian communities. The Middle Church is made up of sessions, conferences, dioceses, bishops, superintendents, seminaries, and confessions. It is also expressed in the interactions, bureaucracies, conflicts, and exhaustions of all the above. We tend to reject the Middle Church because, obviously, the Middle Church is intrinsically all about “organized” religion and deliberately organized persons, something that is not only anathema to modern secular culture, but increasingly to Christians themselves.

This recent Christian antipathy is not only too bad—it is a disaster for the Gospel. For the Middle Church is exactly and solely the place where the church lives through time. That is, the “middle” is where the church does its living and labor, and the “middle” is what constitutes the temporal order from year to year by which the church survives, carries on, falters or grows, so that the apostles of Jesus and their witness emerge and are heard in 2016, in Indonesia, or California, in Ghana, or Baffin Island.

Only the Middle Church can transmit the Gospel, however; and only the Middle Church can create a Christian culture that permits the Gospel to thrive.

The Middle Church is the church of teaching, discipleship, formation, and tradition; the place and people where the faith is received, ingested, and passed on. To understand the Middle Church, one has to understand the Church as Israel. This is the Church of Deuteronomy: a people chosen and named; a people divinely engaged with a distinct set of ordering gifts (the Law); a people set by God upon a path that passes through space and time, within a given land and encounters; a people, finally, receiving the words of God, learning them, and teaching them day by day to her children. To that extent, the Middle Church is about genealogy and generation. It is no surprise that, as these two realities have disappeared in our culture as values and as engaged purposes, the Christian church itself has lost its way.

Both the Old and New Testaments begin with genealogies, that is, with the description of how God’s creative purposes take form in the movement of one generation to the next. The Bible as a whole ends with the gathering of these generations, now embraced from the ends of the world. To move from beginning to end in a way that is both faithful to God and faithful to the means of creaturely existence is precisely to be the Church in the middle of time. The Scriptural forms of Israel and the church are founded on this key relationship between a genealogical and generational culture. Israel moves through time by forming generations in the Law; the New Testament church—Israel revived—moves through time similarly, with the Gospel’s form passed on through the relations of parents and children, the young, the adult, and the elderly, all engaged in a reciprocal, but differentiated set of obligations and roles. We read about this explicitly in Proverbs, the Psalms, and the Epistles. But Law and Gospel are premised on this framework of temporal passage as well.

The reasons behind the social and cultural demise of genealogy, and hence the devaluing of the Middle Church in our era, are complex. But the overall phenomenon is easy to grasp: in a modern world that buffers individuals from mortal creaturehood, value is located in the autonomous self and its temporally immanent choices: it is all about what counts as personal fulfillment and authenticity. The generational form of human life— ancestry and heritage, procreation and history across ages—has been replaced with personal sexual construction that is measured by internal goods, not genealogical fruitfulness. The church has unconsciously embraced these transformed values. Theologically, we see it in the very contrast between local and universal ecclesiologies. Only the Middle Church can transmit the Gospel, however; and only the Middle Church can create a Christian culture that permits the Gospel to thrive.

There is, furthermore, nothing about the Middle Church that can be taken for granted; its existence, as well as its wonder, is always a struggle. The great baroque Italian composer, Antonio Vivaldi, worked for several decades as the music director of an orphanage in Venice, known as the Pietà or Hospital of “Mercy.” Founded by a Christian monk in the 14th century, the Pietà was the church’s deliberate home for children abandoned by their mothers for whatever reason. Infants were placed in a box through a small opening in the wall, a bell was rung to alert those inside, and then the child was taken in and raised. This was the Middle Church at work: Boys were taught a trade, as were many of the girls, and they were raised in the Christian faith. They would then go on to find jobs and form families of their own. Some of the girls, however, were trained in music, taken under the wing of older and more practiced students. Eventually, they became members of the choir and orchestra, some of them becoming famous singers and violinists, and staying for years as they in turn mentored younger orphans. Vivaldi and others wrote hundreds of their most glorious works, mostly Christian in nature, for these abandoned, received, nurtured, and trained young women. Visitors flocked from around Europe to hear them. The Pietà was only one of several such institutions in Venice. They represented the Middle Church wrenching human lives away from social destruction back into the genealogical framework of evangelical nurture that issued in wondrous praise.

The Middle Church, in the past and in our time, is about adults forming children in the ways of God for human creatures, guiding and apprenticing youth, and then giving to young adults who in turn care for their own parents and older relatives. While this sounds old-fashioned, and no different from most traditional cultures of the past, the specifically Scriptural and Christian framework of the genealogical Middle Church is unique: it is always culturally disruptive, as in cases like the Pietà, because it is driven by the profoundest sacrificial ordering of generational service, given in and through the grace of God in Christ Jesus and for its praise. The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus founds, carries, and receives the great generational movement of humanity, the reaches from mortal Adam to divine Adam, the movement that is the Middle Church. The Christian church, in her middling life, wrests the mortal individual away from simple life and death, and places it within the stream of the saints’ passage to the New Jerusalem. The church does so by subverting all the efforts of a corrupted history that would limit persons to their constrained and deformed individual existence, whether of simple struggle or empty indulgence.

Most importantly, our churches will necessarily recognize once again that formation itself is an act of “delivering” the faith across time, and that this can only happen within the shape of a discipline of order, training, accountability, and consistency.

Today, at least in the West, the Middle Church is the only truly revolutionary group that exists. Organizing lives around and within generational engagement, through the Gospel and its Scriptures, constitutes the greatest challenge to fallen culture that there is. Our particular culture negatively defines the Middle Church’s work in terms of “sexuality,” but only because so much of the Middle Church’s life is embodied in the genealogical and generational purpose of human creaturehood. Hence, in our day, the lines of ecclesial struggle are often viewed in these terms: male-female marriage, procreation, the nurturing of children by adults into a certain way of life. But sexuality understood in these terms is important only because, Scripturally, it is located in the generational movement of formation, of bringing children into a world where love is given in terms of teaching, learning, and shaping from the past into the future according to the measure, not of the self, but of older and younger generations linked together.

The culturally captive shape of the contemporary church, argued exclusively in terms of local and universal, has no patience for the genealogical Middle. But, since the Gospel will survive in however a beleaguered form for the return of Christ, we can trust that even our churches must one day return to their vocations to live in the Middle. In doing so, they will, of course, return to a reaffirmation of the genealogical character of sexuality, such as marriage and procreation. But beyond that, they will move back to the Middle by reaffirming the whole range of realities tied to the generational integration of obligation and ministry. They will, for instance, let go of age-segregated worship. They will reengage forms of prayer and music that the old can teach their young and that both can share together. They will recognize anew that, though the roles of formation differ among young and old, learning the Scriptures and being shaped in the Gospel is something that happens in an integrated fashion. Most importantly, our churches will necessarily recognize once again that formation itself is an act of “delivering” the faith across time, and that this can only happen within the shape of a discipline of order, training, accountability, and consistency. The Middle Church will organize herself once again, across space and time, and subject herself to time’s own disciplinary demands in this regard.

More than anything else, the Middle Church, unlike the local or the universal church, will learn what it means to be “one church” through the struggle of genealogical organization. This is the church Paul spoke of in Titus 1(1-9). Paul, an elect apostle bound to the truth that is God’s since “before the world began,” speaks to Titus as his “son” in the “common faith.” That faith is given in the act of teaching over time. Titus, in turn, “orders” the life of the churches he serves, in continuity with this, ordaining presbyters and bishops. Their generational existence, outlined in terms of their families, their ordering of young and old together, attests to their faithfulness in this great work, as they pass on, in the face of opposition, the truth that Paul himself received.

Paul ties all this to “hope.” He is right: the Middle Church is the one great Christian witness to hope, in a world that has very little of it.

About the Author

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